Leader Use of Coded Language

By | November 28, 2018

[November 28, 2018]  Many years ago I was writing one of my first evaluations of a junior officer.  Before I started, my boss gave me some advice; “Don’t use words that are overtly critical.  Use ‘bland’ language.  We will know what it means.”  In other words, in the military we use coded language that says one thing but means something different to those in the know.

What is coded language?  Coded language is a method of communicating a specific message that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has an additional, different, or more specific resonance for a targeted group.1  Yes, leaders do use it.  For example, we find it today many references to racist coded language.  See this article as a good example:  8 Sneaky Racial Code Words and Why Politicians Love Them.

What was my boss doing when he gave me the advice?  In the U.S. military, there is a tendency for officers to ‘challenge’ any wording that points out poor performance.  This can be done in a variety of ways; the strongest is a formal protest to an Inspector General (IG).

To avoid this problem I was advised to write things like, “Lieutenant John Doe is a good officer.”  This immediately does two things.  First, it removes any possibility of a complaint since nothing bad was written.  Second, it communicates to those senior officers that this is, in fact, not a good officer.  Problem solved!

In her 2006 book, Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia, academic Amanda Lohrey writes that the goal of coded language is to appeal to the greatest possible number of electors while alienating the smallest possible number.  She uses as an example Australian politicians using broadly appealing words such as “family” and “values”, which have extra resonance for Christians, while avoiding overt Christian moralizing that might be a turn-off for non-Christian voters.2

We all do it.  Using coded language is not limited to leaders or in-the-know groups; everyone uses code words to communicate messages that mislead.  This is done for a variety of reasons; usually to keep ourselves out of trouble (like being called a racist) or simply to avoid complaints (like time-consuming IG investigations).

Is it acceptable to use coded language?  Yes, but only if you lack the moral courage to tell the truth and you are unwilling to be subjected to a whole lot of trouble.  Remember that leaders must be precise in what they say and write.  Using coded language is not a good idea because, at its most basic level, it is intended to mislead and deceive.


  1. Taken from Wikipedia under Dog-whistle politics.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog-whistle_politics
  2. Lohrey, Amanda (2006). Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia. Melbourne, Vic.: Black Inc. pp. 48–58.
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

22 thoughts on “Leader Use of Coded Language

  1. Nick Lighthouse

    Is it acceptable to use coded language? The answer can be nothing other than “yes” and so for a variety of reasons. Great article today on a subject that is more and more in the news.

  2. Bryan Lee

    I liked your article today but not so sure about your conclusion that leaders must always be precise in what they say. Remember that we humans are all imperfect. As the Bible tells us but also as we grow up we realize it too. Only the nut cases like liberals and snowflakes are mesmerized by all this PC ideology; their all emcompassing religion of the new age.

  3. Sadako Red

    A lack of moral courage? I’m not so sure. Leaders must speak the truth but they must also be practical. They cannot fight every battle and expect to win the important ones too. If you subject yourself to unnecessary abuse by opposing all things politically correct, you will be bogged down in the petty bureaucracy created by those who love it. As Mark Twain said, “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”

    1. Tracey Brockman

      Hey, Sadako Red. Welcome back. We all missed you and your articles. Please post another soon. 🙂

    2. Kenny Foster

      “Red” I’m hearing you are developing a new article. I look forward to reading it. Big fan of yours.

  4. Greg Heyman

    Just ask anyone who has ever attained a position of importance in any organization about this and they will, I’m sure, tell you the same thing. Yes, the use coded language because there is no other choice if you want to be a senior person in that organization. Great article on a sensitive subject.

  5. Albert Ayer

    Racially coded language is similar to microaggressions, but rather than directed at a specific individual, these phrases are most often used in discussions about social issues and current events.

    1. Martin Shiell

      Not sure what you’re getting at here Albert but the idea that we must hide behind language is as old a humankind. Oversensitive people, perhaps sitting in their parents’ basement or being a snowflake in college, are running our society now. I prefer to refer to them as brownshirts. Oh, was that insensitive?

  6. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    Maybe we’re just too afraid to hurt someone’s feelings or to get ourselves into hot water for speaking our minds.

  7. Jerome Smith

    Like when I tell my wife that her dress looks “really good.” She knows that means the dress is horrible.

    1. Eric Coda

      Ha Ha, great point. Also, dinner was “good” or the movie was “okay”. All say the same thing, it was neither good nor okay. Is this really wrong?

  8. Scotty Bush

    If we as humans were to always speak the plain truth, we would never survive in world that swims in coded language. Oh, we would live but never be successful in love or work. Moral Courage only has a bit to do with that.

    1. Janna Faulkner

      Weird article. I read it and it reeks of immature, poorly constructed arguments.

  9. Max Foster

    Oddly, all humans are not open and for a variety of reasons. Politeness is one of them. So, yes we do use coded language and it is not always for nefarious reasons.

    1. Doug Smith

      Good point that should be emphasized. We are, in fact, all human and subject to our defects but defined by our goodness.

    2. Lady Hawk

      I don’t think anyone would disagree. The main point here is that leades do it and often for reasons they should not be using coded language. That’s where the lack of moral courage comes into play.


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